This time last year I discovered two things:
(1) skiing with type 1 diabetes is not only possible, but I have been able to push my own personal limits in exactly the same way as I did before the diagnosis.
(2) the Monte Rosa ski area, and the best hospitality EVER at the Orestes Hütte.
After starting 2014 there, we had to finish 2014 there too. The snow wasn’t as good as last year, but we still had loads of fun exploring the area on skins, found some fun couloirs and had an amazing last day. Every skier should visit the area and the hut.
The Orestes Hütte sits above Gressoney, at 2600m. It is accessible via an off piste itinerary run or by hiking from below. Having arrived late on our first day, we opted to put skins on our skis in the carpark, avoid the lifts, and walk up the 900 vertical metres. Arriving by moonlight was magical and repeated by many of us over the next few days!
The hut is basically like a nice mountain hut. It was built by hand by the family owners. The hot water is on for a few hours each evening, reminding us of the remoteness of the hut, but when it’s on it comes out of a lovely slate claded shower in an en-suite shower room. There is a (superb) three course meal each evening and buffet breakfast in the morning. I choose not to inject fast acting insulin before skiing so appreciated the diabetic friendly nuts, ham and cheese helped down with lashings of olive oil.
There is a yoga room downstairs and Phil and Marta are on hand to give yoga lessons. Mark and I took one and I would return just for the yoga!
The best thing about the hut is the people. Yoga lessons, tips on what to ski (“Alex, I have something for you to ski – see that couloir which is just wider than a ski length and full of hard snow and rocks – great fun!”), great food, but more importantly they were so kind and generous that we felt we were staying with old friends. The place is a gem and I’m looking forward to visiting for years to come.
The ski area itself is amazing. They market it as “Freeride paradise” which is a pretty good description. A small number of lifts get you up high and it is possible to descend 2000m from the lift. It would also be a great place to go touring in the spring, with a number of pretty easily accessible 4000m peaks.
After a warm and dry December, there wasn’t much snow around. No cover below 2000m and strong winds after the most recent snowfall meant that there was no powder snow and it wasn’t possible to ski the epic 2000m descents to the valley floor.
But we still managed to have fun. For the first few days, highlights were:
1. Skinning up to the unnamed peak above the hut on new years eve (twice) and skiing the larch couloir which actually had excellent powder snow. Just a shame that it also had a stream and not much space to turn!
2. Attempting a 4000m peak – pyramid Vincent at 4250m – from the hut. The skin up was extremely difficult. For those of us without couteaux (crampons for skis to stop one from sliding down an icy slope when skinning uphill) it was only bloody mindedness that got us up some of the icy terrain. Because of this we were running way over time, but still in with a shot of the summit when we finally turned around with 600m to go. We had gained a plateau ahead of the glacial pyramid and in so doing came into the full force of the freezing, gale force wind. It was an easy decision to turn back.
On the way down, Mark and I decided to nip into the next valley (the Lys Valley) via a short narrow couloir. We rappelled about a third of it, sidestepped another third which was too narrow to make turns and managed to ski the rest. The reward was a ski down icy crust, but in an awe inspiring environment of tumbling glaciers all around. We had the entire place to ourselves: nobody else was stupid enough to go there! We also had a full on combat ski down to the bottom – breakable crust, rock bands, grass and finally a yomp down an icy track to the Staffal lift station.
3. It was Phil’s birthday that night and the Orestes team gave him a present after dinner – the chance to save a life! He was presented with jacket, boots, shovel, probe and transceiver and sent out into the night. No pressure, Phil! After first being confused by the signal from Oli’s transceiver that he’d accidentally left on in his ski boot, he managed to find the buried victim: a gift from the team. It was a T-shirt with the slogan “lubricated hands make almost everything more difficult”. Brilliant.
4. After a fun morning spent skiing icy crust on more awe inspiring terrain (and imagining what it would be like if it was powder), Emily, Henry and I skinned up 650m from the hut in howling winds, and skied a very short, steep and narrow couloir on the way down (Henry christened it “Satan’s butt crack”). The ski was pretty average but climbing above the hut in another howling gale was brilliant fun and certainly made us feel alive and deserving of our dinner.
5. After saying goodbye and all vowing to return, we skied down to the car park with fond memories of sunsets, adventures exploring the surroundings and amazing food. So I almost decided to drink coffee rather than ski. Thank goodness I didn’t, because a 400m ascent in freezing wind and snow took us from the piste to Passo Zube – which at 2900m links the Gressonay and Alagna side of the ski area. It was so cold that we skinned uphill wearing helmets and goggles. We thought the snow would be good on the other side because the gale force winds had been accumulating the six inches of snow on the lee slopes. The quality of the descent – gentle slopes to a steep narrow couloir set inside towering cliffs – was incredible. 1000m of perfect powder. And no-one had even contemplated skiing it except us. Our grins were only matched by cosmic levels of smugness as we speculated that we had had the best day of anyone in the area!
6. New Year’s Eve. What a party they threw! A seven course dinner from 7pm to midnight, followed by dancing until five am. We had such a good time – thanks Emile, Marta and team!
Now that I’ve got used to managing my blood sugar, it’s actually easier to control my sugar levels when on a skiing holiday where I am doing loads of exercise every day. Because my blood sugar drops so fast when doing exercise after taking fast acting insulin, I choose not to take fast acting insulin until the end of the day. This means that breakfast consists of lots of nuts, ham and olive oil with just a small amount of bread (I can actually eat about 25g of carbs in bread straight before skiing without my blood sugar going up too much). I then snack on nuts (if I’m hungry) or jelly babies, cereal bars and snickers to keep my blood sugar stable. I don’t need to test as much as I used to, but test about once an hour or two when going uphill (because this makes my blood sugar fall more quickly) and before skiing something where falling is not a good idea, or I’m responsible for someone else’s safety – like belaying them or setting up a rappel.
Because of all the exercise during the day, I get to dinner time absolutely starving and with my body needing to replace the carbs it has used during the exercise. This makes me much more sensitive to insulin, so I was eating three course meals, including dessert with just two to three units of insulin. I don’t normally eat sugary desserts because the sugar gets into my blood much faster than synthetic insulin can remove it, but during my skiing holiday my blood sugar basically stayed between 4mmol and 8mmol all the time, whether I was skiing or stuffing my face with chocolate cake. Moral of the story? If you’re diabetic, do as much exercise as you can!
I only had one hypo. Before I walked up to the hut on the first day, my glucose monitor claimed that my blood sugar was 1.8. This is very low! I didn’t feel like I had a hypo though, so who knows. Four jelly babies and a brisk march uphill sorted it out in any case.
Now I’m back home and going to work, I’m not only missing the skiing but missing the better blood sugar control too.